Aside from an audio clip woven into the end of the album, the music of Miles Davis’s A Tribute to Jack Johnson seems to have little to do with the esteemed boxer’s life and times. But it has plenty to do with the life and times of Miles Davis circa 1971, swinging to a groove that was mostly absent from its predecessor, 1970’s Bitches Brew. A Tribute to Jack Johnson is a minimalist, expertly edited distillation of Davis’s vision of jazz-rock fusion, less avant-garde than funky, less intellectual than slightly unhinged. As a transition piece between the ethereal tapestry of Bitches Brew and the angular, freaked-outness of On the Corner, the two long tracks from Jack Johnson–“Right Off” and “Yesternow”–cop licks from Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown, showing most clearly where Davis’s musical and political fidelity lay at the time, expressed in the brash, defiant, and unbowed spirit of the great American fighter from whom the record draws its name.
Jack Johnson has the distinction of of being simultaneously modern and post-modern. Though mostly fueled by Davis-ized contemporary funk/soul musical phrases, the record also has its self-referential moments, from the snippet of “Shhh/Peaceful” (from 1969’s In a Silent Way) threaded into the middle of “Yesternow,” to the winking title of its first track, which harks back to 1959’s immortal modal album, Kind of Blue. Throughout, the stitching together of different pieces played at different times is seamless. One is less inclined to believe that Jack Johnson is a hodge-podge of jam sessions stuck together on tape with almost staggering tonal precision by producer Teo Macero (who to great effect helped shaped the architecture of sound upon which Bitches Brew was constructed), than a profound musical statement put forth by Miles Davis. It is both. What you hear is a set of musicians having fun playing the stuff they enjoy, the most exuberant album Davis had released in years. In Bitches Brew he struggled to clear the land to establish the idea–in Jack Johnson, he’s having a party there, a good time without the overwhelming heaviness. Miles’s happiness is evident most clearly in his horn playing, cutting through and holding all the little pieces together.
Like electric guitar contributions on previous albums, John McLaughlin deconstructs his playing to complement the exploratory aesthetic here, basing his theories on Sylvester Stewart and Jimi Hendrix. In fact, McLaughlin’s approach to his distorted wah-wah sound is so fresh it seems he could have learned how to play just a month previous to the sessions. He stays mostly in the pocket established effectively by Michael Henderson and Billy Cobham, breaking out of the groove in the middle of “Right Off” when he harmonizes with Davis’s trumpet in thrilling, primitive note tests.
Thankfully, the rhythm section (Henderson and Cobham) abstain from the deconstruction exercise and lock into a forward-moving, forward-thinking groove that doesn’t take itself too seriously, that is happily self-conscious in its appropriation and transmogrification of primary sources. The repetition is refreshing, when one considers what came in the subsequent studio album. On the Corner’s expressions of bass and drums are sometimes so intense as to put forth an anti-beat, anti-rhythm manifesto.
The other supporting players do no more than they have to, and the brevity of their playing emphasizes the electrified horn lines of their leader. Jack Johnson is not concerned with playing languid, or reserved, “cool”–here the playing is all hot. Herbie Hancock exchanges his usual elegant articulation for mad scientist chords on an electric organ. Steve Grossman surprises with some slippery, soprano sax runs, the perfect kind of weirdness that renders appropriate classification of Jack Johnson (funk? soul? jazz? rock? “fusion?”) a difficult albeit fun conundrum.
What Jack Johnson proves, if little about the boxer, is that Miles Davis was not behind the curve when it came to the establishment of funk by pioneers like James Brown, George Clinton, and Sly Stone. He was right in the middle, giving back to the funk/soul/pop world as much as he takes from it (Jack Johnson could be seen as a blueprint for Sly’s classic album There’s a Riot Goin’ On) with the same wit and sense of humor funky music can’t help but put across.